' ' Cinema Romantico: State of the Union: The Capitol Dome

Saturday, January 09, 2021

State of the Union: The Capitol Dome

“Boys forget what their country means by just reading ‘Land of the Free’ in their history books. Men forget even more.” – Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

In June of 2019 I returned, as I often do, with My Beautiful, Perspicacious Wife to her hometown, the nation’s capital, Washington D.C. We spent an afternoon at the National Gallery on The Mall and, upon leaving, cut back across to Pennsylvania Avenue. Crossing at that spot, on 6th St, puts you in position for an ideal photo of the U.S. Capitol, heightened on this day by a typical summer D.C. thunderstorm rolling in. I paused in the middle of the crosswalk, snapped a picture and hurried on. I did not consider any looming symbolism in the moment; I just like the image of approaching rain clouds! But I have been thinking about that visual all week, how America has spent the last four years with thunderheads on the horizon, moisture accumulating in the form of hotheaded political rhetoric spewed by a craven President, enhanced by his spineless, self-serving enablers, waiting to unleash a deluge; finally, on Wednesday January 6, 2021, the clouds opened up.


Looking back on it, was there ever a more suitable American actor to cry “Look! There it is! The Capitol Dome!” than Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”? No actor today could get away with that line; it would sound too mawkish. Stewart, though, had a way with words and when he gives his big speech, the one quoted above, his voice is virtually trembling, transforming the sentimentality of the dialogue into something respectfully fierce. As it happens, I have been slowly winding my way through Stewart’s westerns, the ones he made with Anthony Mann, which often run counter to the mythmaking of America just as so many 70s paranoia thrillers post-Watergate did too. “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, on the other hand, culminated the end of FDR’s New Deal, Big Government’s shining moment. Of course, even “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” knew how belief in one’s government could wilt. When Stewart cries out upon seeing the Capitol Dome, the people around him can’t quite figure the fuss; the Capitol’s been there a long time, after all. You start to take these things for granted, see, the Dome loses some of its symbolic sheen and, before you know it, the whole system is teetering on the brink. 


Destroying the U.S. Capitol, and its surrounding District landmarks, has been a recurring silver screen tradition, the modern masters of disaster, Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay, never passing up an opportunity to see the seat of our government go up in flames. (In fairness, Michael Bay would blow up the Bridges of Madison County if they’d give him a permit.) These scenes of destruction, though, tend to reflect the national mood, whether it’s “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers” (1956) and the ostensible red menace or Emmerich demonstrating how as abstract an enemy as climate change can topple the Statue of Freedom in “The Day After Tomorrow” (2004). Just as often, though, like the aliens of Emmerich’s ID4 (1996), destruction of the Capitol building bears no deeper meaning than The Glass Tower in “The Towering Inferno”, an edifice there just to get obliterated for our mindless entertainment, almost seeming to render us oblivious to how it stands for something so much larger than just ourselves. 


Based on nothing more than a series of cult trading cards, and featuring a climatic scene of a bird perched on the shoulder of Tom Jones (as himself), “Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks!” (1996) destroying a sacred symbol might seem unserious too. Yet few films have treated the treated the hallowed east end of the National Mall with quite as much irreverent reverence. Not the destruction of the building itself, which happens mid-movie, but the concluding scenes on the Capitol steps. I have written about this scene before, where the dead President’s daughter, Taffy Dale (Natalie Portman), who I have written fan fiction about before, honors the unlikely donut shop worker, Richie Noris (Lukas Haas), who has saved the world. In its droll way, this moment epitomizes everything about America, our diversity (the mariachi band playing The Star Spangled Banner), our utopian vision juxtaposed against our sinful past (Richie arguing for a return to teepees), our absurdity (the scene’s entire air), and our belief that we can somehow hold together this grandiose experiment even when it is on the verge of collapse. 

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